The NBA officially awarded Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving the 2012 Rookie of the Year Award on Tuesday morning at the Cavs complex in Independence. The honor was a forgone conclusion -- the only thing left to ponder was when word would come down in May that a trophy presentation had been set, and whether or not it would be unanimous. He was the best player in a relatively weak rookie class, and the best player and instant floor leader on a team that was dramatically improved and chasing the playoffs until injuries hit in mid-March.
It's amazing how much things have changed in a year. Last May, the Cavaliers had just wrapped up a brutal 10-month period that included the departure of MVP and franchise cornerstone, LeBron James, and an 82-game march of embarrassment that hit a new low each week. And there did not seem to be much hope on the horizon. Realistic Cavs fans expected to languish in the lottery for a few years, hoping to hit on a top draft pick that could turn the franchise back into a playoff contender.
But there was a certain sense of foreboding about the immediate future, and the 2011 Draft. The Cavs had the second-best lottery odds but it was a historically weak class, by all scouting measures. Steering a franchise at rock bottom, Chris Grant was poised to add a prospect who would likely be an above average role player -- a nice piece from a bad draft, someone not capable of creating optimism or legitimately serving as a force to turn things around.
One year later, after a little luck with the Clippers' pick, the Cavs are in great position to build themselves back into a contender. Irving provoked the optimism and, after a ROY campaign, appears to be a legitimate cornerstone of the franchise and the next great point guard in a league full of them. With the third-best lottery odds in the upcoming 2012 Draft, the Cavs will certainly add another major piece in a little over a month. But Irving is the face of the franchise on and off the court, the point guard who will run this team and low-key personality who will run this city.
Irving took command from the first week, a go-to option in just the third game of the season after almost no preseason. He talked about that game against the Pacers as the top moment of the season, setting the tone for the successful year:
The third game of the season when we were at Indiana and going into the huddle, all of a sudden, coach just called a high screen-and-roll for me. And I was surprised…I just knew that when he told me it was a high screen-and-roll, I was like, I'm going to do my best to get to the basket. And his confidence in me from that point on, although I missed and we lost in overtime, it was just him having that confidence in me was a stepping stone for me.
In a 24-hour span, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert opened his new casino in downtown Cleveland and presented the ambassador of his franchise the Rookie of the Year trophy (and also heard about some injury trouble in South Beach that likely added schadenfreudian delight). He's probably pretty happy. It's a quick improvement from, "Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there." Nothing lasts forever and Irving may well leave one day, but the Cavs are lucky to have such a bright piece to build "around" or "with," whatever preposition Gilbert is using these days.
After a season of rookie thrills, highlighted by dramatic final-minute heroics in road wins against Boston, Denver, and Oklahoma City, there's quickly hope again for a franchise with its second ROY in the past decade. While Irving deflected a question citing the "former No. 1 pick who was here and then left" and on being the "new hope for the city," he thanked Cleveland in the first statement he made, saying the award was "not only for me, this is for the city of Cleveland." He also thanked the organization for their help creating the environment to succeed in his first year in the league, saying that this is the start of something special:
Most importantly, I'd like to thank the management, Dan Gilbert and Chris [Grant]. You guys had the vision to pick me. I remember when I was here for my first workout, it was the most nerve-wracking experience. And seeing you on the sideline and seeing how much you guys have done to [Cleveland Clinic Courts] and having a first-class facility, it just made me want to be a part of it that much more. I know what we're building here is something special, and we're in it for the long haul. So we're going to build something special here.
Irving indicated that he never felt the pressure to live up to any expectations, and that the organization and coaching staff around him was a big part of that:
I get to just be myself. And that's why it's so special here, because I came in here as a 19 year old kid and got to just be myself.
It's easy to say the right things at these awards press conferences, but Irving was still impressive and took the honor in stride -- a goal achieved but just part of a natural process that will be defined by team success. He was gracious and gregarious thoughout the presentation, continually goofing around with head coach Byron Scott. He seems to have a great rapport with Scott, and referenced the many similarities between the Cavs coach and his father, Drederick. While 2012 was a shortened season, Scott's club won only two more games than they did in 2010-11 and the Cavs are back at the top of the lottery. Yet everything is different 12 months later, thanks to the 2012 Rookie of the Year.